UK Ministry of Justice using data to gain control of prisons

'Shiny' dashboards have engaged executives and the ministry is now rolling out a project that uses data in attempt to fix the state of its prisons and another that intervenes where children are flagged as likely to enter the system.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The United Kingdom Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has realised the value in its data, in particular, what having access to it can mean for the judicial system.

Speaking at the 4th Australian Government Data Summit in Canberra on Tuesday, MoJ chief data scientist and head of its Data Science Hub Dr Jonathan Roberts touched on a project the ministry is rolling out across its prison system that sees data on inmates presented in a "shiny" dashboard.

"We've got a serious increase of violence in our prisons; self harm and suicide, and a number of drugs in our prisons -- we're trying to get control of our prisons and we're doing everything we can to help our operational colleagues do that," Roberts explained.

With near-live operational data from prisons, and full abstracts of prison databases provided every night, the MoJ has built an interactive dashboard that contains information on instances such as assaults and self-harm, going back seven years.

"Before we rolled out this product it was taking them six months to get this information back to the prison service, so we've obviously massively shortened the time scale," Roberts said.

Available initially to 15 prisons in the UK, users are able to drill into an incident to return information such as who was involved; the intricate details of assault; and where it was in the prison, such as which wing or if it was in a cell.

Through machine learning and predictive analytics, MoJ has also ranked the prisoners in a particular prison in regards to who is likely to commit a violent offence.

"They have all the information at their hands to manage their prison," Roberts said. "That gives the governor insight into who they should be looking at when managing their prisons.

"It's been incredibly well-welcomed."

To some effect highlighting the failure of MoJ's rollout plan, Roberts said there is a "black market-like" trade of information between those on the trial and those who aren't, with screenshots and print-outs being shared with eager prison staff yet to have access to the dashboard.

"There's a real appetite in our operational services to get live data and provide insight and analytics," he added.

Highlighting problems with the family justice system in the UK, Roberts also touched on a data project that began around six months ago when MOJ started to see an increase in the number of children that would potentially be brought into the justice system or into care and away from their parents.

"We didn't really understand why that was happening ... so we built an interactive dashboard to explore that," he explained.

"The really powerful thing is the policy experts, operational experts, in fact our senior judiciary and academics love this stuff.

"We've drawn out some really powerful insights from a range of diverse perspectives; we've drawn out some stark insights about real regional disparity in the way we in the UK are treating children as they come through the core process and potentially go into care."

Hesitant to give out too much information, Roberts said MoJ is due to release the work it is doing at the end of the month. He did say that the most senior judge in the country, who deals in family law and previously gave the ministry scathing reviews, is now onside, calling the initiative "incredibly powerful and changing the lives of children in the UK".

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